Ivy Compton-Burnett
on . . .


Picture of Ivy when young

AgeAppearancesBitingBooksCakeDeathDesperationDutyFamiliarityForgivenessFriendsGivingGratitudeHearing a pin dropHeavenHer novelsHonestyHumanityInstitutionsJusticeMarriageMenMincing WordsThe PastPatiencePrideSelf-knowledgeThe SexesSilver liningsTimeTogethernessTrustTruthVirtueWeddingsWild horses


"It is the dead we do not speak evil of, and I shall treat my father as living for as long as I can. It is treating the old with more sympathy to speak evil of them."

— from More Women than Men


"It is a pity when we cannot judge by the surface, when it is so often arranged for us to judge by it."

— from Mother and Son

"Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth. But we seem to have no other."

— from Manservant and Maidservant

"They feel your bark is worse than your bite."

"That is an empty saying. Only bark has a place in life. There is no opportunity to bite. I have wished there was."

— from The Mighty and Their Fall


"She does not notice anything when she is reading," said Venice.

"Does she do nothing but read? I hope she will not teach you to be always poring over books. There are other things in life."

"Not in every life," said Graham.

— from Parents and Children


"You cannot eat your cake and have it."

"That is a mean saying. You could, if you had enough cake. It is sad that it has become established. It throws a dark light on human nature."

— from Darkness and Day


"You may not die for a good many years."

"I feel that I may not die at all. Death seems the wrong ending to life. It seems to have so little to do with it."

— from Darkness and Day

"We all have to die in our time. There is no escape."

"When we have had to be alive. And when the two things are so different. We ought not to have to do both."

— from A God and His Gifts


"You are clutching at a straw. And when people do that, it does sometimes save them."

— from Two Worlds and Their Ways


"The sight of duty does make one shiver," said Miss Herrick. "The actual doing of it would kill one, I think."

— from Pastors and Masters

"It is surprising how many people go where duty calls. I wonder if it is because they have nowhere else to go."
— from Darkness and Day


"... familiarity breeds contempt, and ought to breed it. It is through familiarity that we get to know each other."

— from Two Worlds and Their Ways


"Ah, to know all is to forgive all," said Rhoda.

"I confess I have not found it so, my lady. To forgive, it is best to know as little as possible."

— from A Heritage and Its History


"I like to hear about them, and the different ways in which they have gone downhill."

— from Parents and Children

"But we could not speak evil to their faces," said Hope.

"Well, it is not a thing we are obliged to do, Mother."

"I like my friends best when they are doing it. It makes them so zestful and observant. Original too, almost creative."

— from Parents and Children


"People cannot really give at all. They can only exchange."

— from Daughters and Sons


"Now really, you are ungrateful children. You have a beautiful home and every care and kindness. It would do you good to have to face some real trouble."

"You know it would do us harm," said Henry. [age 8]

— from The Present and the Past

Hearing a pin drop:

"It is awkward when there is a hush, and you could hear a pin drop, and everyone waits for someone else to speak, and no one does."

"What harm is there in hearing a pin drop?" said Joanna. "And there is little danger of it. When a pin is needed, no one ever has one."

— from A God and His Gifts


"I must try to conquer myself" said his wife, with the sigh natural to this purpose.

"As you only have your own power to do it with, it sounds as if it would be an equal struggle."

"Heaven helps those who help themselves."

"It sounds grudging of Heaven to stipulate for its work to be done for it."

— from Parents and Children

Her novels:

"Anyone who picks up a Compton-Burnett finds it very hard not to put it down."

— Ivy Compton-Burnett quoted by Elizabeth Sprigge in The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett


"You should be careful what you say."

"I dislike people who have to do that. I have nothing to hide. It is better to talk honestly."

"I think it is much worse," said Walter. "It means all sorts of risks. Honest people can even say: 'If you don't mind my saying so,' after they have said it. And they cannot know before. Dishonest talk is far better. I should like to hear myself described insincerely."

— from A Heritage and Its History


"Well, of course, people are only human. But it really does not seem much for them to be."

— from A Family and a Fortune


"All institutions have the same soul."

— from A Heritage and Its History


"I don't expect justice tempered with mercy. I have only seen that mercy is tempered with justice. I think people get confused."

— from The Mighty and Their Fall


"Of course I see how civilised it is to be a spinster," said Rachel. "I shouldn't think savage countries have spinsters. I never know why marriage goes on in civilised countries, goes on openly. Think what would happen if it were really looked at, or regarded as impossible to look at. In the marriage service, where both are done, it does happen."

— from Men and Wives

"So dangerous, these fusions of personality, don't you think?"

— Ivy Compton-Burnett quoted by Hilary Spurling in Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett

"People ought not to marry openly," said Hugo. "It is one of those things that should be recognised but veiled."

— from The Mighty and Their Fall


"Oh, every one is not a man," said Theresa.

"No, that would be a queer state of things," said Miss Basden.

— from Pastors and Masters

Mincing Words:

"It is unworthy to show off yourself at the expense of others. I do not mince my words. To say openly what is to be said! Ah, how much braver and better!"

"I think it is much worse. I can't tell you how bad it seems to me. And I never admire courage. It is always used against people. What other purpose has it?"

"I have said what I had to say. I shall not add another word."

"I hope not, unless you mince it," said Fanny.

— from A Heritage and Its History

The Past:

"It is the future we must look to," said Constance. "It is useless to pursue the past."

"It is needless," said Audrey. "It will pursue us."

— from A Father and His Fate


"I am afraid I must confess that I yield rather easily to impatience."

"Well, well, it is the same thing," said Herrick. "The one is a condensed form of the other. Patience contains more impatience than anything else, as I judge."

"You judge well," said Bumpus.

"How profound you are, Nicholas!" said Emily. "I have always thought that. Though I have never known that I thought it. Think how it is with everything; how tolerance, for example, is only condensed intolerance, and how it holds more intolerance than anything else. It is just a case for intolerance to be kept in. And think how religion holds more dislike of religion than anything else! ... I think that good is bad condensed, and holds more bad than anything else ..."

— from Pastors and Masters


"Pride may go before a fall. But it may also continue after."

— from Two Worlds and Their Ways


"Self-knowledge speaks ill for people; it shows they are what they are, almost on purpose."

— from Parents and Children

The Sexes:

"There is more difference within the sexes than between them."

— from Mother and Son

Silver linings:

"And we cannot depend on the silver lining, sir," said Deakin. "I have seen many clouds without it."

"I have never seen one with it," said Walter. "My clouds have been so very black."

"Well, the lighter the lining, sir, the darker the cloud may seem."

"You pride yourself on pessimism, Deakin," said Julia.

"Well, ma'am, when we are told to look on the bright side of things, it is not generally at a happy time."

"But it is good advice for daily life."

"Daily life harbours everything, ma'am. All our troubles come into it."

— from A Heritage and Its History


"Time has too much credit," said Bridget. "It is not a great healer. It is an indifferent and perfunctory one. Sometimes it does not heal at all. And sometimes when it seems to, no healing has been necessary."

— from Darkness and Day


"It seems to take two to do most things. To argue and to quarrel and to marry. Man is said to be a social creature. But it does not all seem so very social."

— from A Heritage and Its History


"You must trust me," said Magdalen.

"But that is what I cannot do. At any time you might act for my good. When people do that, it kills something precious between them."

— from Manservant and Maidservant


"Of course truth comes out of the mouths of babes. They are too simple to suppress it."

— from Mother and Son

"Truth is so impossible. Something has to be done for it."
— from Darkness and Day

"Truth does drag one down. I do not think it can be best."
— from Two Worlds and Their Ways


"Virtue has gone out of me."

"It has," said Reuben. "We saw and heard it going out."

— from A God and His Gifts


"A wedding upsets me," said Miss Munday. "I am very sentimental."

"So it does me," said Felix.

"Well, do you know, so it does me," said Josephine. "I cannot explain it, but there it is."

"I can explain it," said Felix; "but I don't think I will."

"I explained it," said Miss Munday.

"We feel that the bride and bridegroom care more for each other, than anyone cares for us," said Helen.

— from More Women than Men

Wild horses:

"Wild horses would not drag the admission from me."

"Wild horses never have much success," said Lavinia. "Their history is a record of failure. And we do suggest a good deal for them."

— from The Mighty and their Fall

"You will find my casual methods a change," said Catherine. "I hope you will not mind them."

"Ursula will not. I will mind them very much. But wild horses would not drag it from me. Though I hardly think wild horses do as much to drag things from people as is thought."

— from The Present and the Past